Co-ordinator  at  the  UKZN  Jazz  Centre, Thulile Zama keeps the fires burning at Africa’s oldest Jazz Centre.

“I am the designated slave but I love what I do,” she says jokingly before bursting into her signature laughter. Her job includes organising concerts for the School of Arts, (the Jazz Centre has a regular Wednesday concert weekly from 18:00), and publicity, ensuring that the students access resources, available Arts bursaries and opportunities.

She does it all with a smile. The warmth that she exudes no doubt makes her more approachable and  easier  for  students  and  fellow  staff members to relate to. “I love the students and I love what we and colleagues are doing in that we are contributing to the Jazz industry and to the music industry in the country,” she says.

A UKZN alumnus, her life has come full   circle.  while   she   previously worked at the Bat Centre and The Playhouse, her stay at UKZN has been the longest and she harbours no intention of leaving anytime soon. “I  am  content,” she  says briefly. One   of  Zama’s  most  important tasks is to “close the gap” between theory and practice. “I organise things like workshops to fill in the gaps of the things that are not in the curriculum. As a person who studied music I know the gaps… It’s important for anyone in this post to be a musician because if it’s just a random administrator with no music background, there is a lot of things you wouldn’t get,” she said.

But the budget is not always enough and sometimes she has to pull strings to convince artists to offer workshops pro bono.

She also organises concerts, which have become a tradition at the Centre since 1989. Some of the big names that have performed at the Centre include the legendary Jazz artist Sibongile Khumalo.

However, Zama says that attendance has dropped and that this  is  a  manifestation  of  a  much  bigger  problem  facing the arts. She is even more concerned about the drop in the number of students who come to the lunch hour concerts. “The arts industry generally is in a dilemma. The culture of audience development needs to be looked at. … It starts with you bringing your kids to watch live music and introducing them to the culture of live music”.

Zama is a member of the neo soul outfit Heels Over Head and is also working on a Miriam Makeba tribute. The group has already released two albums and is working towards releasing a third in 2018 to mark its 10th anniversary. Having performed for overseas audiences in countries like germany and more recently at the Essence Festival in New orleans, she finds it a bitter pill to swallow that artists continue to get more recognition abroad than they do at home. It is perhaps what she is trying to change for Miriam Makeba, albeit posthumously.

“There is too much emphasis on overseas stuff yet we have so much going on here. A lot of people know of her existence but besides Phathaphatha and The Click Song they know very little”.

Zama is the only musician in her family and jokes that she is still trying to figure out where her influence comes from. “The closest thing I have to an artist is an uncle, Mthandeni Zama, who is a lecturer in DUT at the Department of graphic Design. Him and I are the crazy artists in the family.”

However, she credits her parents for her good taste in music. And while they did not initially approve of her seeking a career in music – “Back then they would say at least register for Chemical Engineering so that you will have something to fall back on” – they quickly made peace with it.

Her wish is to see more sponsors coming on board and supporting the Jazz Centre and initiatives such as the UKZN Big Band and the Jazz Jol.

“we need corporates to come on board; with more sponsorship we can do more,” she said.

– Bheki Mbanjwa